Me versus Us

NPR aired a brief report yesterday on recent research into “framing,” the manner in which Americans make policy arguments. According to the researcher, Americans are less likely to respond to appeals to the common good or the public interest than we are to appeals to individual rights and benefits. Our Constitutional emphasis on individual rights, in this analysis, has led to a culture in which policies are evaluated through a highly individualized prism–what we might call a “what’s in it for me” approach.

If this research is correct, Americans have confused a healthy distrust of majoritarianism with an unhealthy disdain for the common good. Those aren’t the same thing. A distrust of the preferences of popular majorities–the “passions of the mob”–is built into our national DNA, and we are right to guard against violations of individual rights that can result. But that is different from civic behavior that elevates personal preferences and immediate gratification over consideration of the good of the community.

The discussion of mass transit is an example. Those who are opposed to a tax for transit are not arguing that transit would be bad for the community–an argument I disagree with, but a legitimate basis for opposition. They are arguing that they don’t want to pay for it, because they don’t believe it will benefit them personally. (Actually, as I pointed out, we all benefit in numerous ways–tangible and intangible–when we live in a community with a better quality of life, but that’s a different argument.)

The researcher on NPR recommended that policy arguments be framed to appeal to the individual–this is what is in it for you!–rather than with appeals to the common good. Perhaps that advice is strategically sound.

But what does it say about us as citizens?


  1. “Those who are opposed to a tax for transit are not arguing that transit would be bad for the community‚Äďan argument I disagree with, but a legitimate basis for opposition.”

    I am not sure why they would make that argument since that’s not what the opposition is about.In an ideal world, it would be great for all cities to have a strong mass transit system. But there is a cost v. benefit issue. The issue is whether having a great mass transit system is worth what it costs in that particular community and the likelihood of people riding the system as opposed to driving private automobiles.

    Given how incredibly spread out Indy is (we are one of the least dense cities) mass transit is not very efficient and extremely expensive. That 20% local proposed tax increase (not to mention money from state and federal taxes) is just a start. Then you have the fact that there is no culture of using mass transportation here. The express buses from Fishers and Carmel failed despite heavy subsidization.

    As you are someone who has written about all the corporate welfare, I too would think you would be more guarded about handing over a billion dollars of tax dollars to the pay-to-play crowd that dominates Indy politics.

    If you were talking about a smaller tax increase to expand and improve Indy’s bus system, you’d get a lot more support. The fact that they won’t abandon rail suggests this isn’t about helping people with travel. It’s about putting money into the pockets of developers, contractors, and attorneys. Rail is where the major graft will be.

    Finally, while you talk about mass transit as a way of improving transportation and letting people traverse the county (a noble cause), the Mayor talks about mass transit as economic development. See previous paragraph. That should be a warning sign about what this is all about.

  2. While the strategy unfortunately made sense as applied to the issue of gun control, i became curious as I was listening: how do you explain support for ‘leveling the playing field’/raising taxes on the wealthy? Do these supporters not see this as being something other than ‘for the good of the community’?

  3. The core point Sheila makes is right on, people tend to respond to the ‘personal’, or that tugs on their heartstrings.
    The resistance to the mass transit plan isn’t about denying the common good however – it’s about spending money wisely. The biggest need is inside 465, so poor people can get to work; Indy citizens already pay enough in taxes to provide an ‘ok’ bus service and ‘ok’ public safety, but the city gives so much money for sports franchises that we have neither.
    I oppose rail transit to the suburbs, as does the Urbanophile, because it’s economic madness. This doesn’t mean I oppose jobs for poor people.
    It’s strange to see so many on the left champion a transit plan written by Hamilton County Republicans.

  4. Interesting thoughts. I tend to support mass transit because I believe it will benefit my community, NOT me personally, as I don’t work in downtown Indy, so my use of either trains or buses would be limited to either occasions where I would be downtown all day or for a special occasion. Is my worldview REALLY that atypical? Sad if true.

  5. Philosophically, this is a neat post.

    It’s not always that cut and dry, however. For example, in light of the spike in violent crime in Broad Ripple in the past 5 years, have the needs of the “greater good” to have a trail during the day outstripped the crime issues people in a formerly safe neighborhood are now confronted with?

    We can discuss the merits of the toll road privatization, but in what world does it make sense for people in Elkhart to pay a toll every day, and then have that money essentially subsidize the paving of sidewalks in Evansville? At some point the sidewalk ends and “we” becomes “they.” In this situation it’s 96th Street. It has to be that way.

    Similarly, is there really that much of a demand for people to get to and from work in Noblesville? Eugene makes a great point, we need to improve services inside the loop before we start spending more of people’s money on these unproven initiatives. True, IndyGo is a mess as it is, so there’s a bit of a chicken/egg problem in terms of it’s lack of useage. It makes more sense given the makeup of the city.

  6. The general point here is spot on. Our inability to see that pursuing the common good has long-term individual positives is a major problem in our policy rhetoric. We’ll forgo mass transit because it’s costly today on an individual level. Then we’ll spend huge amounts on new highway construction and pollution offsets in a decade or two, while we complain about the tax burden. We need to recognize that investments (not expenditures) made today change the cost curves down the road. In another example, should we increase school funding today or build more prisons down the road? It’s not like we’re avoiding the common costs: we’re just spending in different time frames.

  7. I have to agree with Eugene regarding bus service in this city needing vast improvement and expansion. When I lived within 3 blocks of a bus stop I had a monthly pass and enjoyed riding the bus. My boss, a Deputy Director of Metropolitan Development and certainly not one of the poor, rode the bus daily for years. It is convenient, cuts down on pollution, helps safeguard the environment, cuts down on traffic tie-ups and accident rates which would cut insurance costs, lowers the wasteful use of gas and oil due to lone drivers and resolve daily parking problems and sky-rocketing costs for those working downtown. Many in the suburbs would probably do more downtown shopping and attend entertainment events if they had reliable and convenient transportation. Thinking about a rail system in Marion County reminds me of “back in the day” when we spent too much time sitting in lines of traffic waiting for trains to pass no matter where we traveled. I doubt there are enough possible passengers to fully support a mass rail system here.

  8. This reminds me of the arguments we heard in our neighborhood when the city wanted to install sewers to replace aging septic tanks. The main argument against them could be paraphrased “We don’t need them because my septic tank is not leaking”. In this case of course there was a public health issue, so the sewers did go in.

  9. I would suggest that if Fishers/Carmel needs mass transit to their Indy jobs, then the fancy rich folks up there ought to pay for the train. Not those of us who live here already.
    If they really need easy acces to downtown, MOVE DOWNTOWN.
    People IN Indianapolis really need a BUS system to get around town.
    Our is awful based on the info I get from people who TRY to use it.
    But I am a poor judge of that. I could not even use the excellent bus system in San Fran.
    I always ended up on the wrong bus and just stayed with the car or stayed in my own little area.

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